JACKI LYDEN, host:

This past week, the American Civil Liberties Union released a cache of documents, copies of claims made by Iraqis and Afghans asking for compensations from the U.S. military for civilian deaths, injuries and property lost in war. The ACLU obtained them under a Freedom of Information Act or FOIA request. Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, says the documents give us a window into the stories behind civilian tragedies.

Mr. ANTHONY ROMERO (Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union): In one instance, in February 2006, you have a couple of Iraqi fishermen who were on the Tigris River, and when he leaned over to turn off the engine of his boat, they tried to look unthreatening to the American helicopter overhead. And in the report in the FOIA document - which is an exact quote - they, quote, "they held up the fish in the air and shouted fish, fish to show us that they meant no harm," said the Army report that was attached to the claim. And yet, apparently, the Army was really quite confused and shot the men.

LYDEN: A Pentagon spokeswoman says the U.S. government has so far paid $31.6 million for loss of life, injury and property to civilians in Iraq. These payments are made at the discretion of commanders and of military lawyers like John Tracy, who adjudicated nearly 2,000 claims in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

Mr. JOHN TRACY (Military Lawyer): I have the records of my time in Baghdad, and I paid 53 solatia payments - or condolence payments rather - during my time in Baghdad. I should mention that the 52 - or the 53, rather - is not the total amount of people that actually filed claims. There's substantially more individuals who came in my office that filed claims that were valid, that I knew were valid, but I couldn't pay. Because of the rules associated with the funding, I didn't always have, week to week, enough money to pay all of the valid claims. So these are just the ones that I did have money for and were approved by the commander.

One sort of claim that I saw a lot of towards the beginning of the conflict were injuries to children. I had one injury to an adult caused by cluster munitions that had been used extensively during the campaign through Iraq. And I remember one claim where the gentleman who filed in - all three hid his children were injured by the cluster munition, and they had been playing out in their field, the 13th of August in '03. They saw the object - they, you know, were attracted to it, went near it, picked it up or touched it, and it detonated. And one of the boys had his arm blown off; the girl had extensive burns on one side of her body; and the other boy had his eye shot out. And so I was able to pay $3,000 for the injuries to his children.

LYDEN: The claims submitted to the Army show that many accidental shootings occur at traffic control points, also known as TCPs. Major Anne Edgecomb, a Pentagon spokeswoman, acknowledges that there's been a learning curve.

Major ANNE EDGECOMB (Spokeswoman, Pentagon): And just one example is that when we started out, often, Iraqi civilians would not be stopping at the traffic control points because they didn't know they needed to stop, and one of the reasons they didn't know is the signs weren't in Arabic, so that was a simple thing that - we needed to change that we did change immediately so that they would know, oh, they need to - they can read the sign, it's in their language.

LYDEN: But TCPs are also danger points for American personnel. So commanders are asking advice from soldiers who've had to man them. One of them is Staff Sergeant James Hudspeth(ph). Last October, he lost part of a leg in Ramadi when he stepped on an IED. He's currently recuperating at Walter Reed Army Hospital. We caught up with him at a restaurant nearby.

Staff Sgt JAMES HUDSPETH(ph) (Iraq Veteran): You have to treat every single Iraqi as a potential threat because you don't know who the insurgent is, and by the time you notice, let's say a VBIED, it's too late.

LYDEN: A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, a VBIED.

Staff Sgt. HUDSPETH: You know, by the time you notice it, it goes (unintelligible) on you. Everybody will preach it, like, 14 seconds, and the reality is, you're about two seconds to go through this escalation of force and to actually make the decision whether to kill or, you know, die. So every time a civilian gets killed or wants this huge investigation, you just (unintelligible) his career is ended or whatever.

Now, our forces are so terrified about getting in trouble that they don't pull the trigger, and the whole time I've been in Iraq, both times, to go and be able stop two VBIEDs, all the rest made it to their targets and killed the soldiers or wounded the soldiers at the location.

LYDEN: Tell me about that - you say that in a perfect world, you would have an arc of 14 seconds but that you rarely have that much time to make a snap and deadly decision.

Staff Sgt. HUDSPETH: Right. You can't make - I know you might think that we're, like, you know, experts, yeah, and a lot of us are, but there is a limit to it. You know, you got the heat and you got your heart pumping, and a lot of weapons that were fine, you know, the machine guns, they're - I mean, you have the adrenaline pumping, and in a split-second, you don't have a chance to take this perfect, slow, calm aim on an engine block. You get that - the vehicle in the silhouette of your gun sight for you to just pull - hold down the trigger until it stops. And, you know, it's a perceived threat. It might not be a threat, but it's the perceived threat, so it's still fight or flight, it still kicks in.

LYDEN: Have you ever shot someone…

Staff Sgt. HUDSPETH: Not…

LYDEN: …in this kind of situation at a TCP?

Staff Sgt. HUDSPETH: No, I fired warning shots. So - and we keep hearing that they want us to place their lives, civilians, over our own so - at the cost of our own security or at our own reaction time. I mean…

LYDEN: Well, I believe…

Staff Sgt. HUDSPETH: …that's just - that's not going to happen.

LYDEN: It's not going to happen.

Staff Sgt. HUDSPETH: No.

LYDEN: But I believe that's part of a counter-insurgency strategy, that sometimes a civilian life does have to be placed ahead of your own.

Staff SGT. HUDSPETH: We're not police. I know it takes one suicide bomber to take out an entire squad of, you know, American soldiers. If you got a way, which is more valuable - that one Iraqi civilian or a squad of, you know, seven or eight American soldiers? I would never, never place a civilian's life above that of my men. We all have our own families, we all want to come home, and unless you're actually there with us, you can't say anything about it.

LYDEN: You say that you yourself, fortunately, haven't pulled the trigger on some innocent person, but have you seen that happen?

Staff Sgt. HUDSPETH: Yeah. I have seen innocents getting shot. I mean, it's - it's usually at TCPs and usually deals with either being close to a perceived threat like a VBIED or a potential VBIED, or being the driver of a vehicle that doesn't have brakes or something like that, or he can't read the signs or whatever. And they barrel through, they enter the TCPs, so we open up on them. Fortunately, they - the ones I saw weren't actually fatalities. They got wounded, we realized that, you know, what had happened. We dragged and took them to our own aid station and we had them medically treated. That's all we can do.

LYDEN: Right.

Staff Sgt. HUDSPETH: Now once it's done, it's done. It's not my fault he doesn't have brakes.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Staff Sgt. HUDSPETH: It's not my fault he can't read. It's not my fault he doesn't yield to a green laser in the eyes or a spotlight, or he doesn't take heed when I shoot rounds across the hood of his car.

LYDEN: That was Staff Sergeant James Hudspeth. One June 1st, the Army will formally issue new recommendations for soldiers posted at traffic control points, but inevitably, it's war, and civilians will get hurt and killed. For that reason, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is considering legislation to make the process for awarding compensation to civilian victims more consistent and predictable.

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